Mississippi State Flag

Jackson, MS - JANUARY 10: The Mississippi State Capitol dome is visible in the distance as the flag of the state of Mississippi flies nearby in Jackson, MS on January 10, 2019. (Photo by Brandon Dill for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi lawmakers on Saturday took the first steps toward erasing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, a symbol that has come under intensifying criticism in recent weeks amid nationwide protests against racial injustice.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves said Saturday, for the first time, that he would sign a bill to change the flag if the Legislature passes one. He had previously said that he would not veto one — a more passive stance.

“The legislature has been deadlocked for days as it considers a new state flag,” Reeves said on social media. “The argument over the 1894 flag has become as divisive as the flag itself and it's time to end it. If they send me a bill this weekend, I will sign it.""

Mississippi's annual legislative session is almost over, and it takes a two-thirds majority of the House and Senate to consider a bill after the normal deadlines have passed.

There's a two-step process. First, legislators must suspend the deadline with two-thirds majorities. Then, they must take a separate vote on a flag bill, with only a simple majority needed to pass it and send it to the governor.

The House voted Saturday to suspend the rules. It was not immediately clear when the Senate would act.

A bill could be considered as soon as Sunday. It will say that the current flag will be removed from state law. A commission will design a new flag that cannot include the Confederate battle emblem but must include the phrase “In God We Trust." The new design will be put on the ballot Nov. 3. If a majority of people voting that day accept the new design, it will become the state flag. If a majority reject it, the commission will design a new flag using the same guidelines.

People for and against the current flag gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday morning as lawmakers arrived.

Karen Holt of Edwards, Mississippi, was with several people asking lawmakers to adopt a new banner with a magnolia, which is both the state tree and the state flower, and with stars to represent Mississippi as the 20th state. She said it would represent “joy of being a citizen of the United States,” unlike the current flag.

“We don't want anything flying over them, lofty, exalting itself, that grabs onto a deadly past,” Holt said.

Dan Hartness of Ellisville, Mississippi, walked outside the Capitol carrying a pole that had both the American flag and the current Mississippi flag. He said the current state flag pays tribute to those who fought in the Civil War.

“Being a veteran, that's important to me — that you remember these guys that fought in battle, whether they're on the right side or the wrong side,” Hartness said.

Mississippi has the last state flag that includes the Confederate battle emblem — a red field topped by a blue X with 13 white stars.

The battle emblem has been in the upper-left corner of the Mississippi flag since 1894. White supremacists in the Legislature put it there during backlash to the political power that African Americans gained after the Civil War.

The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that the flag lacked official status. State laws were updated in 1906, and portions dealing with the flag were not carried forward. Legislators set a flag election in 2001, and voters kept the rebel-themed design.

But the flag has remained divisive in a state with a 38% Black population. All of the state’s public universities and several cities and counties have stopped flying it because of the Confederate symbol that many see as racist.

Influential business, religious, education and sports groups are calling on Mississippi to drop the Confederate symbol. Flag supporters say the banner should be left alone or put on the statewide ballot for voters to decide its fate.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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